East of Eden is an immaculate American narrative that spans decades in the lives of the Hamiltons and the Trasks in California’s Salinas Valley. Steinbeck considered this novel to be his magnum opus, capturing the totality of his talents and efforts throughout his career. It was one of his final novels, and he received the Nobel Prize in Literature a decade after publishing it.
The mythological scope that Stenbeck achieves in the book takes on an almost biblical scale – a grand, mystical and allegorical examination of several major aspects of humanity. He identifies the struggle of sculpting a personal existence and identity in the face of uncertainty – what is the difference between the internal and the external, and what does this mean in the context of families and relationships? He also examines time as a cyclical burden, as if its trajectory is that of a spinning arrow. We are ultimately tied to this track no matter how we fight against it, and sometimes it is the very fight against it that can cost us more dearly, or at least sooner, than if we accepted that we have no control over it. Some lose a freight car of produce, and others lose their lives. Finally, and perhaps the most notable of all of the thematic examinations that Steinbeck explores, the persistent question of what it truly means to be good or evil. Throughout the novel, we are presented with choices that characters need to make, and these choices are often difficult since there is a spectrum of consequences and victims to all choices. Additionally, these choices are complicated by their place on the character’s alignment like in Dungeons and Dragons – where Catherine is Chaotic Evil, Lee is Lawful Neutral, et al.
These thematic ideas lead to the central point of the novel discussed several times: Timshel. That we all have our own power to choose our ideas of good and bad. To choose our destiny. That we have one go at it. It is philosophically revisited over and over again in the novel both literally (in conversations between Lee and others) and symbolically (through situational actions and reactions). In the end, Timshel is the only answer: that our destiny is in our hands, and we alone are responsible.
I absolutely loved this book. Steinbeck is a master storyteller, and he is most masterful with is his sweeping portraits of characters and locales. This book is captured in vivid time and a place. What I found to be a bit surprising was that this was his third-to-last novel, simply by its length compared to his other novels save Grapes of Wrath. Many writers tend to try to say the most they can using the least amount of words, but in the case of this novel, we are treated to an epic and sprawling modern romance of the highest order… I just wondered quite often whether everything in the novel was necessary and if it was as long as it needed to be with some scenes that I simply didn’t understand having any gravity or importance… Still, easily one of the most immersive reading experiences I have ever had, and look forward to treating myself to many times more in this lifetime. A pure and striking examination of existence, good and evil, the nature of humanity, the nature of identity, and how our choices and lives are entirely within our control even when the consequences aren’t. A beautiful, beautiful novel.
You can read about my Timshel tattoo in an article I wrote for Assignment Magazine at… http://www.assignmentmag.com/onlineonly/2018/4/4/timshel